Immigration Matters: Bolstering Mexico with Immigration and Economic Reforms

March 12, 2009
New America Media
Commentary, Edward W. Littlefield

Recent news about Mexico has focused on the horrific and sensational: drug wars, decapitations, and whether or not the United States will soon have a “failed state” as its southern neighbor. However, the economic recession poses equally serious challenges for Mexico. It is intricately connected to immigration, security, and the country’s cohesion. The United States should consider the recession’s effect on the flow of people north and remittances south while formulating a multifaceted approach toward the troubled nation.

The Mexican economic crises of 1982 and 1984 each produced 30 percent increases in the number of migrants apprehended along the U.S. border. The current recession, however, appears to be having the opposite effect: Mexicans are migrating less and sending less money home. From August 2007 to August 2008, the outflow of migrants from Mexico decreased by more than 50 percent, from 455,000 to 204,000, according to a recent report by Mexico’s National Statistics, Geography, and Information Institute.

Additionally, from January 2008 to January 2009, remittances declined by 11.6 percent. Considering that remittances are second only to oil as Mexico’s largest source of foreign income and that the country is now dependent on the exportation of inexpensive migrant labor, the Mexican economy is increasingly vulnerable to the economic climate here. This year, it is likely to contract by as much as 4 percent, further darkening Mexico’s immediate future.

These developments will have grave implications for the 11.8 million Mexicans, or 10 percent of Mexico’s population, living in the United States. Hispanic immigrants, 8 percent of whom were unemployed in 2008, are particularly vulnerable to the economic recession, given their concentration in the construction, manufacturing, hospitality and service industries. Rising concern about job availability in the United States amidst the recession further threatens the livelihoods of both Mexican immigrants and their southern dependents. A massive repopulation of migrants, however, would overwhelm Mexico. Repatriation increased by 24.5 percent in 2007, and, although it remains unclear whether this trend will continue, Mexico’s economy and social infrastructure could not withstand the pressure.

Some may be quick to welcome these developments, arguing that an exodus of Mexican immigrants will leave more jobs for Americans. However, Mexico’s plight has grave implications for both Mexico and the United States. An economic collapse would prevent the administration of Felipe Calderón from combating drug trafficking, political and military corruption that stems from low salaries and the lucrative temptations of the narcotics trade, economic depression, and the exodus of Mexico’s best and brightest. Mexico is the United States’ third largest export market, and the inexpensive labor provided by its migrants is an integral part of the U.S. economy.

The United States’ increasing concern with drug trafficking and the conflict between cartels and the Mexican military, which appears to have spread to border states like Arizona, further indicates the critical nature of the situation. However, the United States should complement military assistance with immigration reform and financial aid in order to bolster Mexico against organized crime and harsh economic conditions.

In the past three decades, U.S. policy toward Mexico has suffered from one-dimensionality: drugs and economics dominated the Reagan, Bush, Sr., and Clinton years, while immigration was central to the recent Bush administration’s approach. The United States must now adopt a multifaceted policy toward Mexico that focuses not just on security but on immigration and economic development in order to prevent its neighbor’s potential implosion. Security and counter-narcotics strategies, while important – the Merida Initiative provides the Mexican military with $1.6 billion to combat drug cartels – must be complemented by immigration reform and economic development instead of being the sole focus of U.S. policy.

The Obama administration has indicated that its immigration policy will shift from the persecution of immigrants to the penalization of their employers. This change would enable Mexican migrant laborers to continue sending remittances home while simultaneously limiting their employment opportunities to legal channels, thus making illegal immigration less viable.

Economic policy should center on the reevaluation of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). Initially intended to bolster the Mexican economy, and thereby discourage illegal immigration, economic integration has made Mexico more vulnerable to the recession. Free trade has also had disruptive effects on Mexican society, displacing farmers, forcing domestic products from the market, and ultimately propelling the mass exodus from rural areas. Trade links between Mexico and the United States have also withered, as illustrated by the fact that China recently surpassed Mexico to become the United States’ second largest source of foreign exchange.

Given the ominous economic and security situations that threaten both countries, the United States and Mexico cannot afford for the latter’s migration and remittances to decrease. Action must be taken to facilitate the mobility of both people and money. A progressive and multifaceted U.S. policy would view immigrants not as criminals but rather as agents of change in Mexico’s pacification and development process.

Edward W. Littlefield, a junior at Kenyon College in Gambier, Ohio, is a research associate at the Council on Hemispheric Affairs in Washington, D.C.